Listen to a physicist talk about quantum mechanics, and you’ll hear the word “observable”. Observables are, intuitively enough, things that can be observed. They’re properties that, in principle, one could measure in an experiment, like the position of a particle or its momentum. They’re the kinds of things linked by uncertainty principles, where the better you know one, the worse you know the other.
Some physicists get frustrated by this focus on measurements alone. They think we ought to treat quantum mechanics, not like a black box that produces results, but as information about some underlying reality. Instead of just observables, they want us to look for “beables“: not just things that can be observed, but things that something can be. From their perspective, the way other physicists focus on observables feels like giving up, like those physicists are abandoning their sacred duty to understand the world. Others, like the Quantum Bayesians or QBists, disagree, arguing that quantum mechanics really is, and ought to be, a theory of how individuals get evidence about the world.
I’m not really going to weigh in on that debate, I still don’t feel like I know enough to even write a decent summary. But I do think that one of the instincts on the “beables” side is wrong. If we focus on observables in quantum mechanics, I don’t think we’re doing anything all that unusual. Even in other parts of physics, we can think about reality purely in terms of observations. Doing so isn’t a dereliction of duty: often, it’s the most useful way to understand the world.
When we try to comprehend the world, we always start alone. From our time in the womb, we have only our senses and emotions to go on. With a combination of instinct and inference we start assembling a consistent picture of reality. Philosophers called phenomenologists (not to be confused with the physicists called phenomenologists) study this process in detail, trying to characterize how different things present themselves to an individual consciousness.
For my point here, these details don’t matter so much. That’s because in practice, we aren’t alone in understanding the world. Based on what others say about the world, we conclude they perceive much like we do, and we learn by their observations just as we learn by our own. We can make things abstract: instead of the specifics of how individuals perceive, we think about groups of scientists making measurements. At the end of this train lie observables: things that we as a community could in principle learn, and share with each other, ignoring the details of how exactly we measure them.
If each of these observables was unrelated, just scattered points of data, then we couldn’t learn much. Luckily, they are related. In quantum mechanics, some of these relationships are the uncertainty principles I mentioned earlier. Others relate measurements at different places, or at different times. The fancy way to refer to all these relationships is as an algebra: loosely, it’s something you can “do algebra with”, like you did with numbers and variables in high school. When physicists and mathematicians want to do quantum mechanics or quantum field theory seriously, they often talk about an “algebra of observables”, a formal way of thinking about all of these relationships.
Focusing on those two things, observables and how they are related, isn’t just useful in the quantum world. It’s an important way to think in other areas of physics too. If you’ve heard people talk about relativity, the focus on measurement screams out, in thought experiments full of abstract clocks and abstract yardsticks. Without this discipline, you find paradoxes, only to resolve them when you carefully track what each person can observe. More recently, physicists in my field have had success computing the chance particles collide by focusing on the end result, the actual measurements people can make, ignoring what might happen in between to cause that measurement. We can then break measurements down into simpler measurements, or use the structure of simpler measurements to guess more complicated ones. While we typically have done this in quantum theories, that’s not really a limitation: the same techniques make sense for problems in classical physics, like computing the gravitational waves emitted by colliding black holes.
With this in mind, we really can think of reality in those terms: not as a set of beable objects, but as a set of observable facts, linked together in an algebra of observables. Paring things down to what we can know in this way is more honest, and it’s also more powerful and useful. Far from a betrayal of physics, it’s the best advantage we physicists have in our quest to understand the world.